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June 30th, 2007 – by: domjoly
Dom Joly the Rocket man in New Zealand
Imagine swinging on the end of a 100-metre rope in a rocket at speeds of up to 100mph. Welcome to Fly by Wire. Any volunteers?
I parked my rental car next to a little sign in the middle of a very big field. The local residents, a flock of merino sheep, eyed me suspiciously before continuing on with whatever it is that sheep do. Two hundred yards away, the lush green field suddenly dropped out of sight into the Shotover River. I could hear the screams of the passengers on one of the jet-boats that hurtle suicidally through its narrow gorges. Beyond the river, the superbly named Remarkables range shot up to meet the sky with jagged snowcapped peaks. The scene was not unlike my home in the Cotswolds, except that someone seemed to have plonked the Alps and the Colorado River slap-bang in the middle of it.
A beaten-up Land Rover hurtled down the track and screeched to a halt next to me.
“You Dom?” inquired the rugged-looking driver.
“That’s me.” I replied, trying to sound nonchalant.
“Hop in, mate,” ordered the Kiwi, so hop in I did.
My driver was a man of few words as we bumped and bounced up a very rough track, higher and higher into the forbidding hills. At the top of the track he took a sharp left turn and we started a precarious descent into a steep-sided valley. Strung across the valley was a set of steel wires.
An even thicker wire dropped down from these wires to a platform on top of a hut at the bottom of the valley. As we approached the hut I could see that the central wire was attached to a rocket-like device with handlebars at the front and a huge propeller at the rear.
“You ready, mate?” said my near-mute accomplice.
“I think so,” I replied, again trying to look relaxed. A thin bead of sweat started to make its way down my back.
“Right, let’s get you strapped in.” He offered me a helmet that wouldn’t have protected me from strong rain and a pair of goggles that had a whiff of the amateur Biggles about them. I lay down on my stomach and grabbed the rudimentary handlebars as he strapped me into the machine with a series of what looked like old aeroplane seat belts.
“Right, mate, when I press a button, the rocket will be slowly winched backwards up the side of the valley until it reaches its full height. When it stops, pull that left handbrake lever to release yourself and keep your hand tight on the right-hand one. That’s your gas. If you get it right, you should reach speeds of up to 105mph. You’ve got a six-minute flight. Enjoy it, mate.”
He gave me a big thumbs up and pressed a button on a plastic yellow controller, and I felt the rocket lurch backwards. I was being dragged up the valley walls, getting higher and higher, with the front pointing down into the abyss.
IT WAS obviously far too late, but only now did I really begin to wonder, how had I got myself into this situation? Just me and an untalkative Kiwi, alone together, miles from anywhere in the hills above Queenstown, New Zealand, strapped to a rocket? If I died here, nobody would be any the wiser. He could just get in his Land Rover and trundle off to start a new venture. If asked, he could say that I’d never turned up. A shepherd might find some scorch marks in the side of the valley wall one day, but would he manage to put two and two together? I think not.
The idea had been great: fly to New Zealand’s beautiful South Island and see how many crazy activities I could pack into one week. And I had started in Queenstown, world capital of adrenaline adventure. A pretty little town nestled on the edge of a gorgeous lake and surrounded by a stunning range of mountains, it was originally a popular ski destination. But something must have got into the water in the early 1980s — everything changed.
First, they invented bungee-jumping: you can still jump off the bridge where the first jumps ever were attempted.
But they didn’t stop there. Wander down a street in Queenstown today and you are deluged with offers of white-water rafting, jet-boating, Zorbing, paragliding, canyon-swinging, quad-bike safaris, hot-air ballooning, skydiving — the list is endless.
What makes New Zealanders indulge in these high-adrenaline activities? Well, if you look a bit closer, it doesn’t actually seem to be locals doing any of the activities. They just invent them and then charge gullible fools to partake. It’s the tourists who are hurling themselves off precipices and rolling down steep hills in giant plastic spheres.
Which brings us back to me and my rocket at the top of this valley. The rocket reached the end of its climb and I heard an audible click, like the hammer of a pistol, as the release mechanism was engaged — and then there was total silence, save my attempt to control my panic by deep breathing. I looked down into the abyss of the valley and instantly understood the whole drowning man’s life flashing before him concept. More through resignation than determination, I pulled the left-hand lever with a quivering wrist — and it was suddenly a hundred times worse than I’d imagined.
I screeched down into the valley, towards the ground and straight over my Kiwi friend — the only witness to my impending death — who was holding an enormous sign over his head that read “MORE GAS”. I screamed and screamed until there was no breath left in my body and my only choice was to breathe or expire. The rocket started to climb up the other side of the valley and I remember thinking I was going to vomit and then feeling a peculiar dampness down my left leg, and then blackness. I think I blacked out, certainly there were no more signs, just a light at the end of a beautiful tunnel where seven icy blondes were beckoning to me and they were holding beers… Six minutes later, the rocket came to a gradual stop and the man unstrapped me. I got in the Land Rover and, again in silence, we trundled back down to my car. As he drove away I was left alone with the sheep and my thoughts, wondering whether any of that had actually happened.
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